The Records of the Grand Historian

The Records of the Grand Historian was the masterpiece of Sima Qian, written from 109 BC to 91 BC. Also known in English by its Chinese name Shiji, Sima Qian recounted all the rich Chinese history that dated all the way back from the Yellow Emperor from around 2600 BC up to his present time. The Yellow Emperor is the first ever ruler of the land with whom Sima Qian had sufficiently established in a historical perspective in his records. Because the records were the first systematized historical text of its type, they had heavily influenced the landscape of Chinese Historiography and prose.

The Records contains a total of 130 volumes or scrolls (we refer to this these days as chapters) where various information was classified into several categories. Twelve volumes of the Benji (Imperial Biographies) contain all the accounts of the prominent rulers starting from the Yellow Emperor all the way to Qin Shi Huang, including the past kings of the Shang, Xia, and the Zhou Dynasties.

Another ten volumes called the Biao talked about the different timelines of the events that took place. Eight volumes of the Shu are for the treatises for economics and other important topics of the time. Then there’s the thirty volumes from the Shijia that contains the biographies of different Feudal Houses and other eminent persons, the biographies of bureaucrats, nobility, and of notable rulers from the Spring and Autumn, and the Warring States periods. Finally, there are seventy full volumes of the Liezhuan, also known as the collective biographies of other important figures in Chinese history, like Laozi, Sun Tzu, Mozi, Jing Ke, and many more.

Unlike the official historical texts that followed adopting the Confucian doctrine notably proclaiming the divine rights of the ruling emperors and degrading any failed claimants of the throne, the works of Sima Qian is more liberal; with a more objective approach that had been renowned all throughout history and religiously followed by all interested. Most of the volumes that made up the Liezchuan are just vivid descriptions that depicted different events and persons involved in those events. The main reason for this is that the author firmly believed on stories passed on from antiquity, therefore the need to balance the record’s reliability and accuracy.

The family of Sima Qian was highly regarded as historians working for the Han Emperor. This gave him the needed access to the archives of the early Han dynasties. The sources that gave life to The Records of the Great Historian was carefully considered by its methodical and very skeptical author who had clear access to various ancient books written using bamboo and wooden slips.